The Persian Problem: What should we do about Iran?

Iranian President - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

President Ahmadinejad is often presented as evidence that Iran's government are too crazy to be allowed nuclear weapons.

To listen to some of the rhetoric about Iran and its nuclear programme you might think the Iranian government is composed entirely of crazed anti-Semites who are planning a second holocaust – this time nuclear and targeting Israel. They’re compared to Al Qaeda suicide bombers with glorious martyrdom as their only wish.

Yet Iran’s government rejected the option of glorious national martyrdom in 1988. When the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane in the Gulf the Iranians believed the US was about to join the Iran-Iraq war as a direct participant. The Iranian military told their leaders they couldn’t win such a war – and Khomeini was persuaded to sue for peace. Members of Khomeini’s regime included Ayatollah Khameini (now Supreme Leader of Iran) and Rafsanjani – a former President who led the calls for a peace deal in 1988 and now sits on the powerful Expediency Council. (see Ray Takeyh's book 'Hidden Iran'. (1) Takeyh is a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations. Also see former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack's 'The Persian Puzzle' (2) )

What's more Ahmadinejad may be President of Iran, but the President has little power in the Iranian system of government. Khameini , holding the office of Supreme Leader, has the final say on every issue - and is Commander in Chief of the Iranian military. He over-ruled the previous President - Khatami - repeatedly - and can do the same with Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani on the Expediency council has as much influence as the President. Ahmadinejad has only one vote on Iran's National Security Council , which is headed by Ali Larijani, appointed by Khameini. Khameini can over-rule the Security Council in practice must still take public opinion and the views of the reformist and pragmatist factions of Iranian politics led by people like Khatami and Rafsanjani into account (especially as these two factions have now allied to oppose the conservatives). (3) , (4) , (5) , (6)

Iran's 'Supreme Leader' Ayatollah Khomeini has control of Iran's military

Iran's 'Supreme Leader' Ayatollah Khomeini (above) has control of Iran's military - not President Ahmadinejad while the pragmatic Ayatollah Rafsanjani (below) is influential in Iranian politics. Both helped persuade Khomeini to choose peace over national martyrdom in 1988.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani (below) is influential in Iranian politics

Saddam, another leader who was supposedly so crazy he was just itching to spark off some WMDs at a nuclear armed enemy, similarly had the option of inviting nuclear retaliation and national annihilation in the 1991 Gulf War when he possessed chemical warheads for his scud missiles. After warnings of nuclear consequences if chemical weapons were used on the US or its allies every scud missile fired had a conventional warhead. (7) , (8)

In short nuclear deterrence works. As Condoleeza Rice wrote of “rogue states” in Foreign Affairs in 2000 “These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them. Rather, the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence -- if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.” (9)

A CIA analysis provided to US Senators by George Tenet in 2002 similarly said there was little threat to the US or its allies from Saddam – unless they invaded Iraq.(10)

We’re constantly told that the latest bogeyman is uniquely crazy and willing to commit suicide where others wouldn’t. Yet in over 50 years since the first nuclear weapons were developed every kind of government of every ideology has possessed them – including the Islamist military of Pakistan. None has ever used nuclear weapons – or other WMDs (chemical or biological) – against a government that could retaliate with nuclear weapons.

As Takeyh also points out, those Iranians who want nuclear weapons want them for rational reasons of deterrence (11). During the Iran-Iraq war Iranian forces and Iraqi Kurds were attacked by Saddam’s military using chemical weapons systems supplied by the US, China, France, Germany and Britain. US and British aid to Saddam continued after the gassing by Saddam of the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, US aid to Saddam ending only in May 1990 (12) , (13), (14) , (15) , (16). At the time Tony Blair MP refused to sign eight parliamentary motions condemning the gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja by Saddam (17).

Iraqi kurds mourning the dead as they prepare to bury them after Saddam's gassing of Halabja in 1988

Iraqi kurds mourning the dead as they prepare to bury them after Saddam's gassing of Halabja in 1988. Chemical weapons were also used by Saddam against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war. Chemical munitions and the materials to produce them plus delivery systems were provided by the US, British, French , Chinese and German governments among others. Aid from the US and UK to Saddam continued after Halabja.

No wonder then that many Iranians (and Iraqis) distrust international law and the international community.

The proponents of war or military strikes might switch tack and raise Iran’s poor human rights record and its support for terrorism.

Iranian dissidents and separatists often face jail, torture or death; but would an invasion change this? Bush has said the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever from Iraq. In fact Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports show they’re there to stay – many of them now run by coalition or Iraqi government forces including Saddam's former Mukhabarat secret police. So forget "liberating" Iranians by force. (18), (19), (20) , (21) , (22), (23) , (24)

As for backing terrorism Iran certainly supplies training and arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Badr brigade (and possibly the Madhi army) in Iraq. This however is matched , according to the renowned American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, by US special forces deployed in Iran and the neighbouring countries – and US ‘black operations’ funding armed Sunni extremist groups across the Middle East in order to ‘contain Iranian influence’ much as arming the Mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 80s was meant to ‘contain Soviet Power’. ABC News report that the CIA is also aiding the Jundullah terrorist group – Sunni Arab (Baluchi) separatists based in Pakistan and affiliated to Al Qaeda - who are carrying out roadside bombings against Iranian Revolutionary Guard units , assassinations of Iranian government officials and beheadings of captives inside Iran. The aim of all this , according to Hersh, is to provoke the Iranians into doing something that will give Cheney an excuse to get Bush to declare war on Iran. (Iran and Pakistan also brutally repress Baluchi separatists but that does not make Jundullah any less brutal) (25) , (26), (27).

Iran is not then a nuclear threat, its peoples’ human rights are unlikely to be improved by overthrowing its government by military force and it’s no more of a sponsor of terrorism than the Bush administration.

So what can we do to bring greater democracy to Iran?

To answer this you need to take history into account. In 1953 the British and American governments conspired with Anglo-Iranian Oil (now BP) and the Shah (the grand-son of a former military dictator) to over-throw Iran’s first post-independence elected government. Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was over-thrown for the crime of planning to nationalise Iran’s oil industry since Anglo-Iranian refused to give the Iranian government even a 50% share of oil revenues or to pay decent wages to Iranian employees. From 1953 to 1979 European and American governments supported and sold arms to the Shah as he tortured his own people and squandered the country’s oil revenues on himself and his favourites. Even when, in 1979, the Shah responded to mass demonstrations by having the army massacre the demonstrators, this support continued (28) , (29), (30).

This history ensures that as long as the British and American governments threaten Iran with sanctions or a war of ‘regime change’ Iranians will rally behind their government – and the theocracy will find it easy to label the opposition fifth columnists for foreign powers.

So the best thing we can do to bring democracy to Iran is to leave it to Iranians. Leave Iranians alone and they’ll demand and eventually create democracy themselves. Keep threatening them and those threats will keep shoring up the current regime.

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(1) = Takeyh, Ray (2006), ‘Hidden Iran - Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Times Books, New York, 2006 - pages 170-174

(2) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(2004), ‘The Persian Puzzle', Random House, New York, 2005 paperback edition - pages 231-233

(3) = Hauser Global Law School Program (New York University School of Law) Mar 2006, 'A Guide to the Legal System of the Islamic Republic of Iran' by Omar Sial' ,

(4) = Time magazine 20 Apr 2006‘Iran President's Bark May Be Worse than His Bite',,8599,1185293,00.html

(5) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(20054), ‘The Persian Puzzle, Random House, New York, 2005 paperback edition - pages 249-374

(6) = Takeyh, Ray (2006), ‘Hidden Iran - Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Times Books, New York, 2006 - pages 30-57

(7) = Nye , Joseph S. & Smith , Robert K. (1992), ‘After the Storm, Madison Books , London , 1992 , - pages 211-216

(8) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(2002), ‘The Threatening Storm, Random House, New York, 2002 - pages 248-249

(9) = Rice, Condoleeza (2000) in Foreign Affairs January/February 2000‘ - 'Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest' - cited in Chomsky, Noam (2003) 'Hegemony or Survival' , Penguin Books , London & NY 2004, pages 34 & 260 citing Mearsheimer, John & Walt, Stephen (2003) in Foreign Policy Jan/Feb 2003

(10) = Guardian 10 Oct 2002, ‘CIA in blow to Bush attack plans, ,,3604,808956,00.html

(11) = Takeyh, Ray (2006), ‘Hidden Iran - Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Times Books, New York, 2006 - pages 140-149

(12) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(2002), ‘The Threatening Storm, Random House, New York, 2002 - pages 18-20 Pollack mentions Reagan administration financial aid and arms sales to Saddam - and that these continued after Halabja - but pretends that only "the Germans(among others)" provided Saddam with dual-use equipment they knew was being used for Saddam's chemical and biological weapons programmes. In fact the "others" included the Reagan administration , which provided chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems to Saddam. The Reagan and then Bush senior administrations also continued financial aid to Saddam up until May 1990 (see 13 , 14 and 15 below).

(13) = Washington Post 22 Mar 1992, ‘Gonzalez's Iraq Expose: Hill Chairman Details U.S. Prewar Courtship, Washington Post archive article here ; full article also reproduced at the Federation of American Scientists' website here ; This gives an account provided by A US Congressman based on information provided to congressional committees by the CIA.

(14) = Washington Post 5 Aug 1992, ‘GOP Seeks Probe of Gonzalez Over Iraq Data, Washington Post archive article here ; also reproduced at Far from disputing the accuracy of Gonzalez's claims the Bush (senior) administration and the CIA instead stopped providing Gonzalez with intelligence briefings and attempted to have him censured by congress for releasing the information to the public

(15) = 'U.S. chemical and biological warfare-related dual use exports to Iraq and their possible impact on the health consequences of the Persian Gulf War'/ A report of Donald W. Riegle, Jr. and Alfonse M. D’Amato of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs with respect to export administration, United States Senate (1994) - Link to Library of Congress record

(16) = Aburish, Said K.(2000), ‘Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, Bloomsbury, London, 2001(paperback) - pages 241-250 - esp.249

(17) = Guardian 18 March 2003 , 'Diary' , ",,916313,00.html

(18) = White House Press Release 13th Dec 2003, ‘President Bush Addresses Nation on the Capture of Saddam Hussein,

(19) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 (Introduction) ‘Torture and Inhumane Treatment: A Deliberate U.S. Policy,

(20) = Amnesty International 6 March 2006 ‘Beyond Abu Ghraib : Detention and Torture in Iraq,

(21) = Human Rights Watch Jan 2005 ‘The New Iraq? Torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Iraqi custody',

(22) = Washington Post Wednesday, September 28, 2005; A21,‘ A Matter of Honor’,

(23) = Telegraph 03 Jan 2004 ‘CIA plans new secret police to fight Iraq terrorism',

(24) = Times 7 Jul 2005 ‘West turns blind eye as police put Saddam's torturers back to work',

(25) = New Yorker Magazine 5 Mar 2007 , ‘Annals of National Security : The Redirection’,

(26) = ABC News 03 Apr 2007 , ‘ABC News Exclusive: The Secret War Against Iran’,

(27) = Telegraph 17 Jan 2006 , ‘'We will cut them until Iran asks for mercy' ’,

(28) = Pollack, Kenneth M.(2004), ‘The Persian Puzzle', Random House, New York, 2005 paperback edition - pages 27-140

(29) = Curtis, Mark (1995), ‘The Ambiguities of Power : British Foreign Policy since 1945', Zed Books, London & New York, 1995 paperback edition - pages 87-96

(30) = Takeyh, Ray (2006), ‘Hidden Iran', Times Books , New York, 2006 - pages 83-96